Mr F and I went on a journey through the Deep South earlier in the month. It was, for us, a long holiday and it proved to be an excellent one. We flew to Washington, then on to Charleston, South Carolina, then drove to Savannah, Georgia. From there we left the beaten track, driving to Milledgeville, Georgia, then on to Monroeville, Alabama, then Fairhope, Alabama. Our final stops were Biloxi, Mississippi (to stay with our friends Clark and Richard) and New Orleans, the only place on our itinerary we had been before.
If you can be bothered to look at a map, it may seem an odd journey and, perhaps, a curious choice for a gay couple during these troubled times in the USA. Indeed, we had decided that, in the event of any trouble, I would identify myself as a retired high school Principal who was now an evangelical preacher, with Mr F as my driver and amanuensis. (Some of this is, of course, true.) Indeed, I had begun to plan my sermon in case any passing Christian in a small Alabama settlement took me at my word and asked me to preach at their church. In the event, everyone we encountered was lovely to us. Except in New Orleans, which is a rougher city than five years ago, we were constantly being greeted by strangers (‘How are y’all doin’?’) in a way that took me back to Kirkliston in 1967 (‘Ye a’right?’). In Monroeville, the home of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, we ate amply at the only restaurant open on a Monday – I had a fried oyster po’boy – and wandered about looking for ice cream. The only place in town had a ‘Closed’ sign, though there were people inside, and one lady came out and invited us in. It was a Bible Class for the elderly, being led by this women’s husband. We were Scottish, we said, and for a while, consuming excellent ice cream and coffee, we were the centre of attention rather the Good Lord. Her husband’s name was Rutherford, which is my mother’s maiden name; this was a cause of great celebration. They had three kids, two of their own and an adopted child, ‘named after a Kardashian by her birth mother’. Their joy and kindness was palpable, and not, I think, just a surface thing. Could these lovely people really have voted for Trump? Did they hate gays? Did they demonstrate outside abortion clinics? This was Alabama.
The next day we dined at a ‘Bar and Grill’, where the waitress, fascinated by our accents, was startled by my asking for a glass of wine, and politely asked for my I D; the law, she said, when I told her my age.
As usual the States impressed in many ways, even though, because of deranged Ms Truss and her Quasi sidekick, the pound was horrifyingly weak. You sit down in a restaurant they bring you a big glass of iced water, or coffee if it’s breakfast; the bill comes just after the last thing you order so you don’t hang about waiting to pay; we stopped to look for petrol in the middle of nowhere, a place called Sweet Water Junction in Georgia – teams of men were picking litter off the highway and leaving it in black bags which were picked up by a following vehicle – why oh why does this not happen here? In all of these sixteen days we did not see dog shit, though there were plenty of dogs. There were many, many public toilets, all of them sparklingly clean. This is good.
On the down side, half the population seemed to be obese, huge, walking with difficulty. People seem to just leave their car engines on, and drive everywhere. We barely saw a cyclist. The portions were often enormous, and there was so much salt and sugar in everything. Still, we ate very well. We had two meals that I will remember for a long time. One was at the Gray in Savannah, which is the restaurant of the celebrity chef, Mashama Bailey, where the food was exquisite. The other was at Big D’s Butts and Stuff, a barbeque diner only open for lunch, on the highway outside Monroeville. Big D, and his family, had had the flu the week before, and we presented ourselves on their first day back. I had a pulled pork roll; I could eat that pulled pork roll every day till I die and it would make me happy. By a pleasing trick of fate, lunch at Big D’s cost exactly 10% of dinner at the Gray.
We were, of course, in the Bible Belt. Mr Big D had a sort of shrine in his diner, celebrating his family and God; everywhere there were billboards – those which were not advertising lawyers (‘Been in a wreck?’ Phone 777-7777 now for advice’) were promoting the Lord. ‘When life gets too hard to stand, kneel’ ; ‘Shackled by lust? Jesus sets you free’ and my favourite ‘Jesus is alive. Beyond reasonable doubt’. In Jesse’s restaurant in Magnolia Springs, a group of six very large white businessmen said grace before each course, quieting their good-humoured chuckling. But, passing through this world, it was never oppressive. An Uber driver in New Orleans, who did not know where Scotland was, holding a sat nav in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, reflected on the state of the world: ‘Ukraine…all these chil’ren and old peepil dyin’. Putin – God’ll deal with haim…’
One sensed the less prosperous were looked after at least in the small towns, cared for, and I guess the church had a good hand in that. We saw almost no beggars; one, on the street in Savannah, was a young woman; she had a sign that said ‘Don’t give me money. Give me work.’ I was sorry I could not give her work.
There is much more to say, in another instalment, which will be about alligators and sussies….